Gay marriage act is a pillar in country's human rights framework

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am

SIX YEARS AGO, Australia's incoming ambassador to Denmark, Stephen Brady, presented his partner, Peter Stevens, to Queen Margrethe II. This gesture at the official introduction of Mr Brady to the Danish monarch raised eyebrows around the world, but not in this famously liberal nation.

'It was a first in the history of Danish diplomacy, but it was neither problematic nor a sensational event for us,' a ministerial chief of protocol told overseas reporters soon afterwards.

'Homosexual couples in Denmark are invited to official ceremonies as are heterosexual couples, even by the Royal Palace,' he added, sounding remarkably relaxed to the collection of journalists hoping for something rather spicier to file back to the newsroom. But gay rights are taken as seriously in this part of the world as any other human rights.

Denmark was the first country anywhere to legalise gay civil marriages, through its Registered Partnership Act, in 1989.

This pioneering move led to registered same-sex partners enjoying almost all the rights of matrimony, and gave impetus to the passing of similar legislation in the 1990s in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. None of these countries subsequently experienced any discernable breakdown in public morality, family life, or any dire consequence forecast by an army of conservative detractors.

Indeed, Danish society has again gained by its progressivism. Not least in the economy. Among other benefits, many employers have reported increased productivity as a result of greater acceptance between, and integration of, workers of different sexual orientations.

It is no surprise that the act remains a pillar in Denmark's exemplary human rights framework.

It was not always so - 157 years ago the nation was a socio-political backwater, with an out-of-touch aristocracy lording over a society of unequals and too many have-nots. Then, in 1849, the newly crowned King Frederick VII oversaw sweeping reforms that transformed his nation into one of the most democratic countries in the world.

A new constitution was drawn up, which, among other things, guaranteed an independent judiciary, and the rights of free speech, assembly and religion.

In 1915, Denmark became one of the first countries in the world to extend full voting rights to women. This predated by many years similar moves in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Western Europe.

This progressive society was traumatised by the German invasion of April 9, 1940. But during the second world war, occupied Denmark was able to save more than 90 per cent of its Jewish population by helping families escape across the water to neutral Sweden.

Denmark became a beacon of hope for human rights progress in a post-war continent half-destroyed by the politics of intolerance. Only four years after the last victims of the Third Reich were being dispatched to Hitler's death camps (many targeted simply for being gay), the Danish National Association For Gay Men & Lesbians was established in 1948, to promote and protect gay rights. Its work set up a series of incremental changes that led to the groundbreaking Registered Partnership Act, which had such a global impact four decades later. In 1999, the act recognised a broader definition of the family by allowing married gays to legally adopt the children of their partners.

In other areas, Denmark is no less inspirational. The state makes generous provision for family life with polices that are commendably child-centred. Maternity leave is four weeks pre-birth and 14 weeks afterwards. Men are also entitled to substantial paid leave around the time of the birth of a new family member. And a vast array of state facilities and services are provided for children and their parents, from superb day-care centres to highly trained teachers of special-needs school pupils. Physical punishment of children is totally forbidden by law.

Denmark's penal system surpasses international standards, and international observers are given access to prisons and other detention facilities on request. Training programmes for prison officers are developed with prisoners' rights as a key priority. Disabled people are protected by legislation both in the workplace and at educational institutions. And indigenous peoples in the Denmark-administered territories of Greenland and the Faeroe Islands benefit from a raft of laws designed to provide full equality, as well as preserve the nation's cultural diversity.

The picture is not perfect, though. There are concerns about the level of violence against women, a global problem tackled here with more candour than almost anywhere else. A network of crisis shelters for women provides swift help for victims. Nevertheless, many wish to see further progress in the areas of domestic abuse, rape, and related problems.

Secondly, many have concerns about a welfare state that appears to serve ethnic Danes and other Europeans better than residents from the developing world.

These concerns are being addressed today by the courts, parliament and the media.